Lessons from the Melting Pot
I can see them before me if I close my eyes.
One is serious, just like in her picture on the "Schuelerausweis," the
school Ill stamped with a swastika. Her green eyes are the window to her
Hungarian heritage, to Roma music and merriment, but she is silent now
during the long train ride to school. The feeling there is tense, and she
longs to retreat into the world of her zither lessons, butl those have
been cancelled. The only activities allowed now are the meetings of the
Hitler Youth, and she detests this organization and the songs which she
must learn there, but there is no way out. Whoever refuses to attend the
meetings is not allowed to go to school at all. No exceptions. No choice,
but to sit in the train, angry. Her name is Dorothea, and she is my
grandmother. (Dorothea Becker, personal interview, December 2002)
The other woman stands tall and proud, her piercing blue eyes so at odds with her brown face that one cannot easily look away from the wrinkled photograph. For centuries her Cherokee ancestors lived free and prosperous, but invaders changed everything. War and sickness raged until there was no spirit and no anger left at all. Her own mother had escaped the dying reservation in Oklahoma, bartered for some furs to a French trapper looking for a bride. Her name is Gertie and she is my great-grandmother. (Gertie Ellison, personal diary, 1915).
Both the Holocaust and the Trail of Tears became a reality for me this year as I began to write down the memories of my grandmothers. The more I learned about my own family history, the more I realized the powerful potential of America's melting pot culture to help us understand the importance of respect and tolerance, and to enable us to relate in a personal way to the hate and violence which are unleashed in its absence. Our unique society possesses the characteristics necessary to raise awareness and promote tolerance among diverse peoples. Journalist and author Thomas Friedman names these characteristics: "The spirit of community, the melting pot, the willingness to help faraway strangers in need and, most important, a concept of citizenship based on allegiance to an idea rather than to a tribe" (1999, p.1).
In order to realize this potential, we must take a close look at our own personal heritage, embrace the lessons of world history and, above all, accept the awesome responsibility to act upon what we have just learned.
Lessons in history begin at home with a good look at the family tree: it is not so easy to discriminate against others or to ignore their sufferings when one's own lineage reads like a recipe for vegetable soup. If enough generations are involved, most families will uncover a tragedy which is the result of persecution. Any lessons are more meaningful if we transport them from the pages of newspapers and history books into our own homes. Author Betty Smith (19,43) describes the fate of those who do not listen to their own heritage: "They learned no compassion from their own anguish. Thus their suffering was wasted" (p.159).
World history proves again and again that discrimination, persecution, political oppression, terrorism, slavery and even genocide become the order of the day in societies which allow hatred and violence to rule over respect and tolerance. It is important to learn both from the Holocaust and from the other examples of genocide which have taken place in our own century. Only the Holocaust can teach us to understand the magnitude of hatred, as we struggle to grasp how six million innocent people could die as a result of Nazi persecution (Rees, 1997). Only world history can teach us to understand the universality of hatred, as we try to count the countries which have adopted its insidious agenda, even after the horrors of WWII[ were brought to light. Rwanda, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor: the list seems to go on forever (Power, 2002).
Above all, history can help us to explain the nature of hatred, so we can be aware of its presence in our own lives. I would compare it to a snake:
Finally, after we have examined heritage and history, we must assume the responsibility to take positive action. 'Why do we study history at all, if we do not choose to step in the right direction? Samantha Power, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, beseeches us to end our "society-wide silence," to become "upstanders instead of bystanders," and to cross the "gap between self-perception and behavior" (Power, 2002, p.509 and Power, online interview).
Let us use our vast knowledge and our melting pot perspective to remain vigilent, to denounce hatred and violence, and to refuse to look the other way. Let us apply our wisdom in everyday life and also demand from our leaders that they take action against violence. Let us follow the advice of Elie Wiesel: "I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation." (1986, p.1)
To do otherwise is to invite the next Holocaust.
Power, Samantha. (2002). "A Problem from hell": America and the age of genocide_ New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Rees, Lawrence. (1997). The Nazis - A warning from history. New York: The New Press.
Smith, B. (1943). A Tree grows in Brooklyn. New York: Perennial Classics, reprinted in 1998.
Wiesel, Elie. (1986). The
Nobel acceptance speech. Retrieved April 12, 2003 from
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